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davew's picture

The Right Tool

There is an old experiment. You take a bunch of students one at a time and give a them two boards and a rope. You tell him/her to cross a room as fast as possible without their feet touching the floor. Most students tied the ends of the rope around the boards, held the rope in the middle, and shuffled across the room. Some tied the boards to their feet and walked across the room. The average time for these students was a little over two minutes. Then they performed the experiment again with a different set of students. This time the experimenters provided one board and a rope. Without exception these students tied one end of the rope around the board, grabbed the other end, and hopped across the room. These students averaged a bit over a minute and a half. Better. One last experiment and a fresh batch of students. The instructions were the same except this time no boards and no rope. These students crawled across the room on their hands and knees. Their average time was 23 seconds. I was in college twenty years ago when I read about this, but in made an indelible impression. The finding is that our thinking can be handicapped by the tools at our disposal. Sometimes the best solution is no tool at all.

Before I gave up my car I took the time to figure a bunch of stuff out. How to do the shopping, how to get to my hair cuts, and dentist, and doctor, and work, and how to cruise for sweet chicks who are into nerds. Actually I never figured that last part out, but I took the plunge anyway. A couple of things I hadn't figured out yet like how to get back to Iowa to visit my mom. Well it's been a little too long now so I need to figure out how to do it. In the interest of full disclosure I actually I did go back once a while back when my dad fell ill. I rented a car (mea culpa) and drove 14 hours each way (may the Sierra Club have mercy on my soul.) I am bound and determined to get to Iowa again this time without laying waste to the Midwest.

The solution is simple, slick, and actually way more convenient than flying or driving. Did I mention cheap? It's cheap, too. Amtrak! I'd heard about it before, but never ridden it. Get this, from 100 yards outside my front door I catch a little local bus. Five minutes later I'm in downtown. That's $1.50. There I catch the Denver bus to Union Station. That's $3.75. Then I catch the train to Iowa. Add another $83. It will actually be necessary to have a car at the other end, but only for 60 miles (mea maxima culpa) so add another $69. This is a grand total of $245.50! Not too shabby compared to an airfare of $560 plus the mysterious charges that get tacked on after you agree to the rate plus the usurious airport parking charges not to mention the date rape of the lower atmosphere. The other cool part is... remember I said a car takes 14 hours? Well so does the train. Except I don't have to drive. And they'll cook hot food for me. And it's over night so I can sleep away most of the trip without risking a head-on. And I can take my bike if I like. A friend of mine rides this train to Chicago six times a year or so and he says the seats are more comfortable than business class on an airplane. Totally sleepable. Did I forget anything? Oh, yeah. You don't have to strip naked and get probed before you get on a train. You just walk on.

Cars are tools to be sure (as well as some of the people who drive them), but so frequently they are the wrong tool. It's just the guys in the white coats handed us one so we feel obligated to use it for just about everything. Once deprived of this crutch so many more options open up and most of them are better. I may be crawling on my hands and knees, but I'm having the time of my life.

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